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Open source leading state's IT overhaul

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn has a plan to reform the state's IT operations, and open source software plays a leading role.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is overhauling its IT governance, making it look an awful lot like a big business.


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Chief information officer (CIO) Peter Quinn is managing the state's IT like an enterprise, unifying its three branches of government and diverse IT environments under a common set of policies and best practices. Quinn wants his IT managers to consider and implement open source software wherever it fits.

At the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) conference last week, Quinn said that the recently launched Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC) will help the state cuts costs, enable IT managers to replace outdated legacy systems with open source and spark innovation.

The GOCC is an open source code repository, based on the University of Rhode Island, where participating states can deposit and withdraw code and look at open source projects being developed. In addition to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Utah, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia currently participate in the GOCC.

 Sign the agreement, deposit code in the code bank, and we don't care if it's pure open source or legal proprietary code that you can distribute.
Peter Quinn

"Sign the agreement, deposit code in the code bank, and we don't care if it's pure open source or legal proprietary code that you can distribute. We believe at the end of the day we're going to get a lot out of this," Quinn said, adding that agencies are not required to add code unless they choose to.

The primary driver behind the adoption of open source for the Commonwealth is that it increases the opportunity for innovation and brings people to the table who have never been involved with government, Quinn said. "Some people think it's an anti-Microsoft thing, but I've worked through a lot of stuff with Microsoft."

As for Quinn's governance problem, the challenges are steep.

Quinn said 30% of the state's IT department is expected to retire within in the next five years. Also, IT shops statewide were missing service levels 26% of the time.

To reform state IT, Quinn assembled the 30 agency CIOs and asked them to list their top concerns. The IT Commission started with a list of 45 issues that was whittled eventually to five, including:


  • Flat or declining investment in IT from the legislature (roads and highways received priority over IT);
  • Lax communication between agencies ("every man for himself approach");
  • Solid financial reform;
  • Use of appropriate financial vehicles. Quinn said that the state had people buying PCs with money from seven-, 10- or 20-year bonds, and since the life of a PC is three to four years, the state was paying for them for a long time.

Quinn said that while direct communication with his agencies was integral, he added that it was even more important for IT shops to "eat [their] own cooking."

"If you have to implement what you design, it really takes a different flavor … everybody comes in and designs it, but you have to go out and make it work as well," Quinn said. "We found this to be very helpful in terms of building our enterprise technical reference model."

Aside from working with agency CIOs, Quinn also holds meetings with vendors, lobbyists and standards groups. He tells them everything that his administration is doing, including the standards they currently incorporate into the administration, such as the Federal Architecture Models and the National Association of States CIO model.

"We get very, very public … we keep it out front, keep the communications high; it [mitigates] a lot of the back room deals that happen in the legislature with the lobbyists and executive branches," he said.

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